Ramadan Kareem!

8 September, 2010

(“Ramadan Kareem” means “Generous Ramadan” in Arabic. The typical response would be “Allahu Akhram” or “God is most generous.”)

If you’re going to invest any amount of time and effort beyond quick sightseeing in the Middle East, it’s worth it to stick around for Ramadan. This is the holiest month in Islam, wherein people avoid eating, drinking, and smoking from sunrise to sundown. It’s meant for people to engage in empathy with the poor and those who don’t have enough to eat, and to inspire charitable deeds in an effort to reconnect with God.

I kind of think of Ramadan as a month-long hybrid version of Christmas and Thanksgiving: add religious aspirations to incredible displays of consumerism, and mix with an inordinate amount of food. Preparations for Ramadan started in earnest: we started seeing signs advertising Ramadan a few weeks before it actually started, such as this ad for a café:

(note the lack of food on the tables)

Also, a few days before the start, the supermarkets were jammed with people buying cart after cart of food even until the early hours of the morning. Were it not for the large, decorative Ramadan lamps suspended over Metro Market’s displays, one would think that a hurricane or some other Biblical (Quranic?) level affliction were about to descend upon Alexandria.

The typical modus operandi for Ramadan is that people will avoid any kind of physical activity or exertion during the daylight hours, instead choosing to sleep or cook in preparation for the iftar (breaking of the fast.) Then, the second after the Maghreb (evening call to prayer) sounds, restaurants and kitchens come to life. The streets become absolutely empty, and pretty much all that can be heard throughout the city is the clinking of forks against plates.

As you can imagine, the entire character of the country changes pretty much over night. Much like lapsed Catholics running to Midnight Mass, even the most secularly minded Egyptians seem to become devout. People line up outside of the masjids to collect free food handed out by imams, and traffic becomes even more incomprehensible as people take to the streets to throw out packets of dates into cars as they drive by. Almost every shop plays nasheeds (the acapella religious songs) instead of European and Arab techno.

It’s extremely interesting to watch the transformation, but it also presents some severe challenges when it comes to working. I read an article that said that worker production goes down a significant percentage while spending on food tends to skyrocket, which has economic side effects that ripple throughout the region. At Amideast, our teaching schedules changed from working from 4:30-9:30 every night to 2:00-4:30, then 8:30-11. Also, Egypt was the one Muslim country that instituted a time change for Ramadan- by setting the clocks back an hour, it makes the sun rise and set an hour earlier. We also had to deal with the intense heat of the summer, and these factors all added up in a kind of unholy combination. We quickly grew used to seeing our students come in at 2:00 bright-eyed and bushy tailed, and be damn near comatose by the time class was done. Then, the same thing would happen- after a day of fasting, the gigantic feast prepared at night would cause a food coma of a nearly terminal level, so we had to contend with slack-jawed, heavy-lidded students who couldn’t wait to crawl back home, fix another ample plate of leftovers, and drag themselves into bed before their stomachs burst. Because so many teachers were on vacation during this month, the remaining staff were saddled with 4 classes each, meaning we had to adjust our schedules to keep up with the needs of our many, many students.

Ramadan also had less pleasant side effects- the lack of food, water and cigarettes in a country in which 50% of the male population smokes led to some EPIC levels of crankiness during the day. Similarly, we got used to hearing Ramadan as an excuse for everything: “Ahmed, you weren’t in class the other day and we had a quiz. What happened?” “Ramadan.” “Mohamed, the water’s been off for 12 hours. What happened to the work crew?” “Ramadan.” “Rania, why do you never participate in class activities?” “Ramadan.” “Mohamed, the water’s back on but it’s been a week and the hole still hasn’t been filled yet. People are throwing their garbage in it. What’s going on?” “Ramadan.”

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to overcome was the unfortunate discovery that all three of the bars in Alexandria were closed for the entire month of Ramadan, therefore decimating the expatriate community. Any shop that sold alcohol shuttered its doors. The one exception was a small kiosk located on a very conservative street we called “Stare-a-dise Alley” for the amount of attention we usually get when we walk down it. The owner, a Christian, hid his stock behind sodas in the refrigerator, and would disguise any order within several recycled cigarette cartons to prevent the clinking of bottles. Buying a beer suddenly felt like taking a trip back into 1920’s-era Chicago, complete with all the trickery and sleight of hand.

That being said, Ramadan is something that one simply has to experience if you want to understand the Middle East and how important religion is to its inhabitants. Listening to the calls to prayer resonate as the sunset traced elongated shadows on the buildings as people rush home to eat and the sight of the crowds of people praying in unison in front of the mosques were powerful, interesting experiences that far outweighed the frustrations of dealing with a fasting populace or having to work into the late hours of night.

Ramadan ends on the 11th, and we head back to America on the 16th. We finished our last terms teaching at Amideast, graded our last finals, signed our grade sheets, and boarded the 6am train to Cairo. Ten hours later, we arrived at Soft Beach Camp in Nuweiba, our favorite little beach town in the Sinai. As I write this, the sound of the wind chimes in a gentle breeze are dueling with the sounds of waves lapping up on the sand.

Last night, Set and I slept under the stars on the beach, and she woke up at 5am to find three stray camels wandering around the camp. It’s a great way to end Ramadan, and a wonderful end to our time in Egypt.

We’ll probably upload another entry or two as the week goes on, but for now, here I am, hollering at you from the top of Mount Bekya:

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5 Responses to “Ramadan Kareem!”

  1. Laura nisbet said

    …Just amazing. I am speechless. You are a very fortunate young man to have had these experiences.

    • Bern said

      You at the top of the mountain hollering at us (probably saying something like it’s beautiful here, but I want a taco) with the sea in the backgroundappears so peaceful. The small boat in the pristine water makes you want to go fishing!

  2. ken nisbet said

    Thanks for your observations on life in Egypt during Ramadan. What a cultural experience you have had. A week in Nuweiba is a nice way to finish your time in Egypt.

  3. Mohamed said

    i hope that you spent a wonderful time in Egypt and come back again and again soon

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